A blast of techno lights up the Detroit Symphony

11.26.11
Mason Bates
Detroit Free Press

By Mark Stryker

Leonard Slatkin has always championed new American music. But in recent years, the 67-year-old music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra has broadened his gaze to include not only composers more or less his own age -- William Bolcom, John Corigliano, Joan Tower, John Adams, Joseph Schwantner and others -- but also those of a younger generation like Mason Bates, Jefferson Friedman and James Lee III.

This is rarer than it should be.

At a certain point, conductors tend to stick with their friends or music they already know. But to his credit, Slatkin goes out of his way to stay in touch with up-and-comers, typically asking his veteran composer-allies for recommendations from their pool of students. As a group, these younger composers, like their teachers, favor tonal idioms, stylistic eclecticism and a free exchange of ideas between the music they write for the concert hall and the vernacular music they also love.

Bates, whose highly charged, 20-minute work “The B Sides: Five Pieces for Orchestra & Electronica” (2009) lit up Orchestra Hall on Friday, is a prime example. Based in the San Francisco Bay area, Bates, 34, studied with Corigliano among others; but he also moonlights as a DJ, and the influence of techno music, the electronic dance music pioneered in Detroit by Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, was all over “The B Sides.”

What was most impressive was how organically Bates integrated electronics into the acoustic sound world of the orchestra. He knows how to orchestrate: Performing with the DSO on a laptop computer and electronic drum pad, Bates, who stood near the percussion section, dappled techno beats and sonic atmospherics into the mix the way a painter might apply an especially vibrant range of colors to a canvas.

So, for example, the opening “Broom of the System” merged sandpaper blocks and, literally, a household broom to create a swooshing rhythmic ground that grew into gleaming post-minimalist pulsations, winking perhaps at the influence of Adams and Steve Reich. High strings, mallet percussion, winds, bursts of muted trumpets and irregular electronic beats created an ever-shifting mélange of fragmented melody, rhythm and meter. The groove was elusive, abstract, yet you always felt the essence of dance.

A similar sense of mystery informed the purely acoustic, ballad-like “Aerosol Melody (Hanalei),” whose clarinet and oboe melody and evocative string glissandos led to the third and longest movement, “Gemini of the Solar Wind,” where over a bed of slow-moving, richly voiced chords, Bates incorporated samples of actual dialogue from the 1965 Gemini IV rocket voyage (“Roger,” “Looks like we’re coming upon the coast of California,” etc.). The point was to take listeners into another space, but for me this was the moment when the electronics began to sound gimmicky and arbitrary.

But with “Terminal Noir” the music returned to an irresistible, syncopated shuffle. This led to the finale, “Warehouse Medicine,” an homage to Detroit techno in which Bates finally cut loose with a steady four-beat electronic stomp -- boom, boom, boom, boom -- that drove the orchestra to a jubilant climax. Slatkin led a dynamic performance, save a few moments of awkward coordination early on between Bates and the orchestra, and the DSO players threw themselves into the score with enthusiasm and understanding.

The concert opened with a high-intensity reading of Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” in which Slatkin’s surging tempos created a bit of a breathless quality to the composer’s songful melodies, but the music still engaged the senses, especially the exquisitely played cello passages. After intermission, Slatkin and the DSO collaborated on one of their best performances of the season in Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3.

More concise and less effusive in its opulence than the composer’s beloved Second Symphony, the Third doesn’t get much respect from critics or audiences. But it is still a honey, its three movements filled with rewarding tunes, warm lyricism and prismatic color.

Slatkin found a judicious balance between forward momentum and relaxed singing and between sweeping drama and carefully etched details. Led by guest concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis, who played the key violin solos with a voluptuous sound and Russian soul, the DSO strings bloomed beautifully, while terrific clarinet, French horn and English horn solos floated to the surface and then submerged back into the ensemble fabric.

Unfortunately, a woman in the balcony fell on the stairs during the third movement, creating a disturbance that brought the concert to a dead halt while she was attended to. The good news is that she was fine, and the orchestra members picked up where they had left off, though by then the magical spell that the performance had been weaving had been broken. Here’s to a safe and uninterrupted concert tonight and Sunday.